‘Moonshiners and Prohibitionists’ provides historical context for today’s politics of alcohol in our communities
Talk about a “moonshiner” and it inevitably evokes images, in many people’s minds, of dirty, bearded men surreptitiously cooking up “White Lightning” in the deep woods or caves.
But homemade liquor has had a distinct, and very important role in the economy of Appalachia.
Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia, by Bruce E. Stewart, and recently released by the University Press of Kentucky (kentuckypress.com), chronicles the on-again, off-again relationship our rural communities and institutions have had with “King Alcohol,” and the folks who produced it, over the last two centuries.
Stewart’s scholarly look at “the origins and expansion of the anti-distiller movement” focuses it’s insightful gaze on western North Carolina mainly, but can be extrapolated to apply elsewhere in the region.
Like most issues, the temperance movement is complex and multi-faceted. And it’s aftermath, and lasting legacy on the region, profound. There is no one solid factor that led to North Carolina’s statewide ban on alcohol sales and production in 1908, and later Prohibition nationwide. Stewart is successful in conveying the nuance and complexity of the issue over the book’s swift and readable 219 pages.
He delves deep into the economic and moral influences that drove the middle-class townspeople to begin supporting temperance efforts in the 1830s.
Though Moonshiners and Prohibitionists only touches fairly briefly on pre-19th century Appalachia, it does hint at the prodigious amount of alcohol consumed by people of the time. It was a practice of pragmatism and practicality as well. Distilling of alcohol was a vital part of the economy. Farmers, in more remote areas, had greater difficulty bringing crops to market — but they could turn it into “corn likker” and fetch quite a price.
Alcohol was, obviously, heavily ingrained in the culture.
Things started to turn in the early and mid-19th century when many residents began to believe consumption of alcohol was causing the region to stagnant, economically and morally. On the opposite side were those who felt production and consumption of alcohol was a matter of personal freedom. Pre-existing cultural divides were heightened.
The tug and pull of political and cultural forces raged on for nearly 80 years. At times, it seems distillers (moonshiners), who typically made corn liquor or fruit brandies, were heroes fighting for freedom and against hated “revenuers” with the department of Internal Revenue, tasked with collecting taxes on liquor. Other times, they were scapegoats, blamed in part for food shortages during the Civil War period and the early years of Reconstruction. Sometimes, they were considered righteous soldiers battling overzealous government efforts to tamp down personal freedoms. Others times, they were looked at as instigators of violence and lawlessness.
Stewart details how negative stereotypes of Appalachian residents in general — spurred on by missionaries, local-color novelists and journalists at the time — highlighted the differences, often unfairly and inaccurately, of their traditional lifestyles against those of the rest of the United States in the midst of rapid industrialization. More urbane townspeople often fell in with this “mythology” and saw temperance as a way to reform their more rural neighbors whose way of life was ill suited to becoming wage earners.
Alcohol producers could count, at various times, local churches as either allies or enemies of their cause. The Ku Klux Klan even proved a formidable protector of moonshiners for years until the people they were protecting became increasingly worried the group’s violent methods would lead to deployment of military troops to quell the problem. That’s one area I wish Stewart could have detailed even more in his book because of the fascinating interplay between racial politics and alcohol.
What Moonshiners and Prohibitionists does most effectively is provide solid historical context for where we are today when it comes to the politics of alcohol in our communities.
It’s a little served area in historical research, and it’s definitely worth a read for anyone interested in the subject matter.
Moonshiners and Prohibitionists is available in paperback and various e-publication formats at kentuckypress.com, or can be purchased on www.amazon.com and through regional booksellers.